Between 2011 and 2015, the New York Times commemorated the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War by publishing, every day for four years, a series of original essays under the generic title “Disunion.” The essays varied in length and subject matter. On dates of significant events — the Battle of Gettysburg, the release of the Emancipation Proclamation — longer, more thoughtful essays appeared. But the standard form was a short piece on a host of topics written by a wide range of scholars within and without the academy. There was a smattering of economic and diplomatic history, and rather more political and military history. Reflecting the current interests of the professoriate, there was a good deal of social history — with particular attention paid, for example, to brief biographies of individual women and ordinary soldiers, especially black soldiers.

“Disunion” was, in many ways, the ideal collaboration of journalism and scholarship. Many of the leading historians of the Civil War era, reflecting a variety of different approaches, were given substantial space in the nation’s premier newspaper. The series, as a whole, was refreshingly undogmatic. “We wanted a multiplicity of perspectives,” the editors at the Times noted, adding that they never “expected to cover the entirety of the war.”1 By 2015, when the 150th anniversary of the war ended and the series concluded, the most demanding scholars could not help but be impressed by the range and quality of the essays.

The paper’s next major foray into US history, “The 1619 Project,” could not have been more different. Extravagant claims of long-suppressed truth displaced the Times’ earlier, more modest recognition that each generation revises the past and different scholars argue over it. Collaboration was discarded by journalists who arrogantly dismissed any historians who raised substantive objections. The “multiplicity of perspectives” was gone, supplanted by an ideologically driven narrative. Not surprisingly, the 1619 Project was riddled with egregious factual errors. Yet, in some ways, the most startling thing about the project was the utter unoriginality of its claim to have discovered the historical significance of the year 1619. To anyone who earned a PhD in US history after 1965, this claim was almost risible.

“Why Weren’t We Taught This?”

In 2001, Reid Mitchell, the author of pioneering studies of Civil War soldiers, published a brief history of the American Civil War. “If we choose,” Mitchell began, “we can trace the origins of the secession crisis to one of the most famous years in colonial history, 1619.”2 Scholars reading that sentence would have raised no objection. We all knew that 1619 was the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to the British colonies of North America. And since we all knew that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, Mitchell’s sentence made perfect sense. Moreover, because Reid was a graduate school buddy of mine, I had a pretty good sense of where he was coming from.

The very first seminar I had at UC Berkeley, in the fall of 1974, was taught by Winthrop Jordan, who had published a monumental history of racial ideology in early America.3 That book, White Over Black, had in a sense settled what we called the Handlin-Degler debate over the meaning of 1619. In 1950, Oscar and Mary Handlin published a major essay arguing that the first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619 were initially incorporated into the existing labor system and only gradually differentiated from indentured servants.4 The implication of their essay was that there was nothing inevitable about the transition to slavery in early Virginia. In 1959, however, Carl N. Degler argued that prejudice against black people was present from the beginning. He highlighted evidence indicating that differential treatment of blacks and whites began earlier than the Handlins had suggested.5 The message of Degler’s piece was that the writing was already on the wall in 1619. To some extent, both positions were correct, Jordan answered. The importation of the first Africans was undoubtedly driven by the demand for labor, and it did take time for slavery to develop, as the Handlins had suggested. But Jordan also documented prejudices about blackness that were already evident when the English colonized Virginia. In 1619, however, those prejudices were inchoate, as was the labor system itself. From those ambiguous beginnings, Jordan concluded, racism and slavery would develop hand in hand, over time, into a full-blown system of racial slavery.

Jordan’s book moved beyond the Handlin-Degler debate, but it did not stem the flow of books and articles exploring the significance of 1619. Senior scholars — Wesley Frank Craven, Edmund Morgan, Alden Vaughan — would weigh in, but so would innovative younger historians: Kathleen M. Brown, Anthony Parent, and others.6 By the 1980s, historians recognized that the Atlantic slave trade had long predated 1619 and that racial ideology had deeper and more complicated roots in European history. The development of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database provided new information about the origins of those first twenty Africans. But scholars also moved on to other debates over slavery and its wider significance in European, Atlantic, and American history. Indeed, the 1970s were something of a golden age for slavery studies, as scholars debated — often quite ferociously — the paradoxical relationship between American slavery and American freedom, the capitalist vs. paternalist cast of Southern slave society, the vitality vs. the weakness of the slave economy, the robust culture of the “slave community” in the Old South, and the reasons for the astonishing emergence of antislavery politics in the Age of Revolution. It is safe to say that, for the past fifty years, no serious American historian doubted that 1619 was a significant date and that slavery and racism were central problems in the nation’s history.

What are we to make, then, of the opening sentence of Jake Silverstein’s introduction to the 1619 Project in the New York Times Magazine? He writes that 1619 “is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history.”7 It would be one thing if Silverstein simply promised to introduce readers to the diverse body of literature produced by generations of scholars who have meticulously combed through the records of early Virginia to unearth the story that began in 1619. Instead, readers got Silverstein’s breathless suggestion that the Times was courageously introducing us to something we never knew about and had therefore underestimated. And if it was insulting to scholars, what did it say about the thousands of students who, for decades, listened to our lectures expounding on the meaning of 1619, or who read about 1619 in their US history books? According to the Pew Research Center, 93 percent of Times readers have finished college. What were they taught?

Shortly after I entered college in 1970, Degler published a major comparative study of slavery in the United States and Brazil.8 He had incorporated his own insights into the importance of racism and slavery into his popular one-volume survey of US history, Out of Our Past: The Forces That Shaped Modern America, the first edition of which appeared in 1959. As it happens, that was the textbook I was assigned in the survey of US history I registered for as a freshman. Several other monographs were also assigned, but the only one I recall, because it left such a deep impression, was Kenneth M. Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, the book that reoriented all subsequent slavery studies away from the racist, romanticized story that had prevailed for half a century. For the second half of the survey, we read Stampp’s The Era of Reconstruction, 1865–1877, the book that, once again, broke decisively with the racist depictions of the post–Civil War years. We also read C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow, quite possibly the most widely assigned history monograph of the time. It was from Woodward that I learned not only about the “nadir” of American race relations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Jim Crow laws were hardened, when black men were disfranchised, when lynching was common, and when, in the aftermath of World War I, whites rampaged through the streets of major American cities, including the appalling massacre of black residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was taught that, until World War II, the term “race riot” generally referred to white mobs attacking black people.

By then, the early 1970s, The National Experience: A History of the United States was easily one of the most popular US history textbooks on the market, and among its distinguished group of authors were Stampp and Woodward. Jordan and another teacher of mine at Berkeley, Leon Litwack, coauthored yet another widely used textbook. These were well-written books by distinguished scholars who were not inclined to minimize the significance of slavery and racism in American history. It’s possible that mine was an unusually enlightened education, but I doubt it. Certainly, the sales of books written by Stampp and Woodward, not to mention the popularity of their textbook, would suggest otherwise.

In 1979, Frances Fitzgerald published America Revised: History School books in the Twentieth Century, an account of how dramatically US history textbooks written for both high school and college classrooms had changed over the previous decade. Unlike earlier generations, students were now systematically introduced to marginalized groups — black people, women, immigrants, workers. The tone of the books, far from being patriotic, struck Fitzgerald as surprisingly dark. Rather than nationalistic narratives telling of the inexorable rise of freedom and democracy, US history texts by then focused on conflict and violence, oppression and resistance to it, without all that much Whiggish progress.9

One year later, in 1980, when Howard Zinn published his extraordinarily popular A People’s History of the United States, most of his younger readers would have sat in classes that likewise emphasized those same darker elements, perhaps relieved by tales of heroic resistance by slaves, feminists, farm laborers, and workers. Zinn’s opening chapter was a harsh critique of Christopher Columbus and the decimation of the Native American peoples. Chapter 2, “Drawing the Color Line,” was all about slavery. The first line of the chapter quotes from a black writer who “describes the arrival of a ship in North America in the year 1619.” Zinn efficiently summarized the Handlin-Degler debate. “Some historians think those first blacks in Virginia were considered as servants, like the white indentured servants brought from Europe,” Zinn explained. But “the strong probability” was that “they were viewed as being different from white servants, were treated differently, and in fact were slaves.” He quoted extensively from Edmund Morgan’s 1975 book, American Slavery, American Freedom, a profoundly influential interpretation that tied the development of liberal republicanism to the simultaneous growth of slavery and racism. Zinn’s book thus reflected the large body of scholarship on slavery in early America, all of which treated 1619 as a crucially important date in American history. 10

In short, 1619 was there in every textbook and had been for decades. It was a staple of US history lectures in colleges and high schools across the country, and it was there in Zinn’s iconoclastic alternative to mainstream textbooks. Yet Silverstein simply assumed that Americans knew nothing about it. And it’s not only Silverstein. Historian Robert Cohen has noted that Zinn’s archives are chock-full of letters from admiring young readers who claim to have had scales fall from their eyes upon reading his book. It was so different, they wrote, from the “stodgy” and “patriotic” textbooks to which they were subjected in school. It would be interesting to know which stodgy, patriotic textbooks they had been assigned, since, as Fitzgerald documented, they had long since been displaced by much more critical accounts of US history.

Maybe the problem is the specific year. How many times have students complained that history is just a boring compilation of names and dates? With so many dates to remember, students can be forgiven for not recalling 1619, even if they were told how important it was. But what if we think instead of the larger significance of 1619 and don’t worry too much about that particular year? Even scholars sympathetic to the Times project have pointed out that the first enslaved Africans were brought to North America by Spanish colonizers in Florida, decades before 1619. One of the reasons the Handlin-Degler debate receded is that, as US historians stepped outside their provincial boundaries, they realized that the Atlantic slave trade had been in operation for more than a century by the time the first Africans were brought to Virginia. Thus, the particular year — 1619 — may have diminished precisely because historians have focused more on the larger significance of African slavery in the broader Atlantic world. If folks don’t recall learning the date, it’s not because they were not taught about the importance of slavery in early American history.11

This historiography, known to most any historian of the South, continues to elude Jake Silverstein in his recent introduction to the 1619 Project, published to promote the release of the book The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story in November 2021.12 He is clearly unaware, for example, of the historians writing in the late nineteenth century who placed the struggle over slavery at the center of US history. They included participant-historians like Henry Wilson and Horace Greeley, gifted amateurs like James Ford Rhodes, as well as the first generation of university-trained scholars, like Hermann von Holst at the University of Chicago and Albert Bushnell Hart at Harvard. Not knowing this, Silverstein mistakes the intellectual context of the pioneering work of the black author George Washington Williams. In his “insistence on the influence of slavery,” Silverstein writes, Williams was writing “against the grain” of existing scholarship — when in fact Williams was swimming with the tide.

Silverstein credits the next generation of “Progressive historians” with replacing the supposedly mindless nationalism of nineteenth-century scholarship, while also noting that progressives like Charles Beard “hadn’t focused much on slavery.” It would be generous to call this an understatement. The progressive historians were hell-bent on erasing the significance of slavery in American history. Frederick Jackson Turner set the tone in 1896 when he declared that the fundamental conflict in American history was the struggle between East and West, not the struggle between North and South. So much for the Civil War. It was Beard who systematically ignored the debate over slavery in his history of the Constitutional Convention and who, together with Mary Beard, went on to write an influential textbook denying that slavery was the issue in the Civil War. Silverstein isolates Ulrich Bonnell Phillips from the progressive tradition of which he was a part, leaving readers unaware that his racist, romanticized histories of slavery were part of the larger effort to make it look as though slavery was not something anyone was or needed to be fighting over.

Silverstein’s account of post–World War II historiography is a cartoonish reduction of “consensus” history to mindless Cold War patriotism. There is not the slightest indication that Richard Hofstadter, the premier consensus historian, was a trenchant critic of the shallowness of the American political tradition, or that, in 1944, he published one of the earliest denunciations of the racist biases of U. B. Phillips’s account of slavery.13 Nor that it was Arthur Schlesinger Jr who, in 1949, insisted on restoring the struggle over slavery to the history of the Civil War.14 Oblivious to the way it undermines his own chronology, Silverstein ticks off a list of the galaxy of scholars who, in the 1940s and 1950s, placed the study of racism and slavery at the center of US history.

Silverstein highlights the black scholars whose work he sees as a “counternarrative” to his stereotype of the mainstream. No one doubts that pioneering black scholars helped complicate our understanding of the American Revolution and the Civil War. But I’m leery of Silverstein’s tendency to segregate the historical scholarship of blacks and whites. It’s not only Williams who gets ripped out of his context. In the 1930s, W. E. B. Du Bois produced a dramatic account of slave resistance during the Civil War, but so did Bell Irvin Wiley. Lorenzo Greene published his pioneering study The Negro in Colonial New England in 1942, but a decade earlier, Frederic Bancroft had published Slave Trading in the Old South, a devastating rebuttal to U. B. Phillips. Benjamin Quarles highlighted the problem of slavery in the American Revolution, but so did Donald Robinson, Staughton Lynd, and — need I repeat — Winthrop Jordan. The pushback against the blinkered scholarship of the earliest decades of the twentieth century was undoubtedly central to the work of black historians, but they were not alone.

And this is where Silverstein’s new introduction slides off the rails. For it was the success of that pushback that led conservatives, beginning during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, to complain endlessly about the way US history was being written and taught. Every complaint Rush Limbaugh or Charles Krauthammer made against the “hijacking” of American history by “multiculturalists” showed, yet again, that by the 1980s and 1990s the conservatives had lost the war. Silverstein dutifully recounts Lynne Cheney’s complaint that Harriet Tubman was mentioned more often than Ulysses S. Grant in the proposed national history standards, without realizing that this undermines the Times’ claim that the 1619 Project represents a salutary corrective to the way US history has been taught to schoolchildren for decades.

Like every ideologue who ventures into the study of history, Silverstein reduces the current controversy over the 1619 Project to a conflict between those who posit a patriotic myth and “the best scholarship” that sees the American Revolution as “sordid, racist and divisive.” There you have it: Silverstein speaks for the truth, against the critics who cling to mythology. This is self-serving claptrap. Those of us who see in American history profound divisions over democracy, equality, racism, and slavery are not plumping for a myth.

It is Silverstein who still cannot wrap his mind around the fact that, during the American Revolution, “some” Americans defended slavery while “some” Americans opposed it, and that the opposition to slavery had momentous consequences. He clings to the popular liberal myth that conservatives have “prevented generations of Americans from learning” about the “fundamental contradiction” between democracy and inequality at the core of our history — yet he does not realize that the endemic conflicts arising from that contradiction are conspicuously missing from the 1619 Project.

So the 1619 Project begins with a cliché, a tiresome liberal trope, endlessly repeated: “Why weren’t we taught this? Why didn’t we know this?” To which the obvious answer is: You were taught this. Unless you didn’t bother to take a US history class, or you didn’t do the reading, or you weren’t paying attention to the lectures, or you forgot. When I began my stint as a teaching assistant in my second year at Berkeley, where hundreds of students registered for the US history survey every semester, the first half was taught by Winthrop Jordan and the second half by Leon Litwack. Litwack’s class was justly famed for his extraordinary lectures, which, like his published work, strongly emphasized the depth and persistence of racial oppression in US history since the Civil War. His recent obituaries suggest that, over the course of his career, some forty thousand undergraduates sat through those lectures from the 1960s to the 1990s. He was not the only one stressing those themes. These days, when students register complaints about their US history classes, it’s often that there’s too much emphasis on race and slavery.

Erasing Antislavery

If the 1619 Project was not actually introducing Americans to an aspect of their history they were never taught in school, why the controversy? If all the Times was doing was restating what we already knew, why the complaints? What was it about the way the Times presented that history that caused so much strife? There were the egregious factual errors, of course, but it’s more than that. It’s the ideological and political framework of the project that led its editors to those inaccuracies and distortions. The 1619 Project is, to begin with, written from a black nationalist perspective that systemically erases all evidence that white Americans were ever important allies of the black freedom struggle. Second, it is written with an eye toward justifying reparations, leading to the dubious proposition that all white people are and have always been the beneficiaries of slavery and racism. This second proposition is based in turn on a third, that slavery “fueled” America’s exceptional economic development.

Nationalism is always an interpretation of history, and it is always a distorted interpretation. Think of the way German nationalists, Southern nationalists, or Zionists have all used and abused history to justify their politics. History written with the goal of instilling patriotism in its readers, such as the 1776 Project, cannot help but be distorted. Nationalist histories emphasize continuity, tracing virtually unbroken lineages back through centuries, even millennia, often through racial or quasi-racial conceptions of a folk heritage. And above all, nationalists erase class divisions within the putative national community. Black nationalism — understood not as a protest movement but as the dominant ideology of the black professional-managerial class — is a variation on the theme. It views US history almost exclusively through the lens of race. It defines racism as America’s original sin, a sin that has been all but universal among whites and is passed down from generation to generation, like DNA. The metaphors of “original sin” and “DNA” are designed to freeze history, to emphasize continuity rather than change. Nikole Hannah-Jones refers in passing to the “progress” black people have made, but readers will be hard-pressed to find evidence of it — and in any case, whatever progress there has been was achieved by blacks alone, thanks to the racist gene embedded in white America’s DNA.

None of which is to say that there are no continuities in history. The racial prejudices that Degler and Jordan documented in early Virginia developed into a racist defense of slavery that lived on well past slavery’s abolition. The content of racial ideology, as an intellectual construct, has changed over time, as has the intensity and significance of racism. Frederick Douglass imagined — naively, in retrospect — that because racism was the product of slavery, the abolition of slavery would undermine the salience of racial ideology. But, of course, that didn’t happen, and there is still good reason to think of the period from 1890 to 1920 as the peak years of racism’s influence in American life. But racism has never had a life of its own. It exists in particular social and political contexts, and as those contexts change over time, so does the specificity and significance of racism. The persistence of “race” as an idea — for that’s all race is, an idea — cannot obviate the fact that the overthrow of slavery ushered in a revolutionary transformation in the lives of African Americans.

Nor is racism the only continuous force in US history. There is also a history of anti-racism that barely registers in most histories of racial ideology. Jordan famously observed that slavery and racism developed hand in hand, but White Over Black also demonstrated that racism and anti-racism developed hand in hand. And, like racism itself, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century anti-racism did not look and sound like late twentieth- and twenty-first-century anti-racism. But it is impossible to read antislavery documents from the revolutionary era and not notice the attacks on racism. The opening paragraph of Pennsylvania’s 1780 abolition statute is devoted entirely to a forthright condemnation of anti-black racism, for example. Abraham Lincoln is often quoted and justly criticized for his offensive remarks that pandered to his racist audiences, but most of the things Lincoln had to say about race were egalitarian, and he repeatedly denounced the racial demagoguery of his archnemesis Stephen Douglas. Anti-racism has always been part of the progressive tradition, and the challenge for progressive historians is to examine the conditions that activate the anti-racist tradition and submerge the racist one.15

But no such enterprise is conceivable within the terms of the 1619 Project, because the only tradition it acknowledges is the unchanging tradition of white supremacy. Christopher Lasch once pointed out that all-explanatory principles explain nothing, yet here was the New York Times, serving up a relentlessly monocausal explanation for virtually all of US history, presented without embarrassment. “Nearly everything” important about the United States, Silverstein declared, is the product of slavery and racism:

its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, its diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day. The seeds of all that were planted long before our official birth date, in 1776, when the men known as our founders formally declared independence from Britain.16

If nearly everything was caused by racism and slavery, it must follow, as night follows day, that the defense of slavery had to be one of the “primary” reasons for the American Revolution. This absurd, insupportable claim is derived from a syllogism rather than source material. The jury is not out on the question, because juries deliberate over evidence. When confronted by the absence of evidence, the Times changed to wording that read that protecting slavery was the primary reason “some” Americans rebelled. That may be true, but there’s more evidence that “some” Americans rebelled so they could begin to undermine slavery. Either way, the effect of that rewording is to destroy the intellectual architecture of the entire project, for if — whatever the individual motives of “some” people — the revolution itself was not driven primarily by the defense of slavery and racism, it follows that slavery and racism cannot explain one of the most important events — if not the most important event — in US history.

More important, the Times got the relationship between slavery and the revolution completely backward. Consider the famous incident in late 1775 when a British official, Lord Dunmore, offered emancipation to slaves in Virginia who joined his troops. Silverstein tried to argue that Dunmore’s famous proclamation so angered the colonists that it tipped them into rebellion. Scholars quickly pointed out that Dunmore was responding to a colonial rebellion that was already well underway. Yet Dunmore’s proclamation is significant for reasons that escape Silverstein. The fact that so many enslaved people took up British offers of emancipation is significant in its own right, but the fact that the British even made the offers revealed a historic shift in the relationship between slavery and war.

Throughout history, war has been the largest single source of slaves. War has generally led to mass enslavement, not mass emancipation. But enlightened theories of war were biased against slavery, and that bias was reflected not only in British policy but in the Americans’ acceptance of that policy. In three separate treaties with Great Britain — in 1783, in 1795, and in 1815 — the Americans accepted that slaves who escaped to British lines and were emancipated during the war would not be returned to their owners, nor would their owners be compensated. Slaves were legally defined as personal property, and both the Confederation Congress and the first US Congress affirmed that personal property could be legally confiscated in “just” and “lawful” wars. Thus, the American Revolution established the legal principle that military emancipation was a legitimate practice under the laws of war, thereby setting the crucial precedent for military emancipation during the Civil War.

Antislavery convictions were already being voiced by radicals during the English Civil War in the 1640s and 1650s — not coincidentally, at the same time the British were building a proslavery empire. As that empire developed, especially in the eighteenth century, so did antislavery voices grow louder and more insistent, not least among the dissenting Protestant sects. The rise of Anglo-American slavery gave rise to Anglo-American antislavery. But it was the revolution itself that put slavery in jeopardy. It was the revolution that injected anti-racism into American political culture, as a counterpoint to the increasingly racist defense of slavery. And it was the revolution that inspired the world’s first abolitionist movement, the world’s first provision for the abolition of the slave trade, and the world’s first abolition statutes.

A generation of brilliant historians debated the relationship between the emergence of abolitionism and the emergence of capitalism in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution. Even Eric Williams, as skeptical as he was of the humanitarian motives of the first generation of abolitionists, never doubted the significance of the development — a development he attributed directly to the American Revolution. Once upon a time, historians asked how much the rise of abolitionism could be explained by the rise of capitalism. For the editors of the 1619 Project, there’s nothing to explain.17

The abolition of slavery in the Northern states set the stage for generations of intense sectional conflict. In the early twentieth century, “progressive” historians systematically erased that conflict from American history. Readers of Beard’s influential account of the Constitutional Convention would have been left scratching their heads over James Madison’s observation that the major conflict at the Philadelphia gathering resulted from the division between Northern and Southern delegates. It took Staughton Lynd to expose Beard’s suppression of the slavery issue at the Constitutional Convention, and now the New York Times wants it suppressed again.18 Conflict over slavery? Among the founders? Among whites? How can this be?

Where the reality of the conflict cannot be overlooked, antislavery is now routinely discounted on the grounds that its supporters had unacceptable motives. Sure, the argument goes, some whites argued against slavery, but it was never a moral argument. “Humanitarianism” has become an analytical red herring, held up chiefly to denigrate the antislavery movement. Opponents of slavery complained that it propped up an arrogant aristocracy that threatened American democracy. They pointed out that slavery inhibited Southern economic development, depriving poor whites as well as enslaved blacks of any chance for a decent life. Slavery stripped black men and women of the fruits of their labor — of the bread they earned from the sweat of their brow, Lincoln said. If it expanded into the territories, slaveless settlers would never be able to compete. But these are disparaged as mere political and economic arguments, not moral arguments grounded in humanitarian concern for the enslaved. And what about the claim, endlessly repeated among antislavery politicians, that slavery was a violation of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, that it deprived slaves of their natural right to freedom? This is taken to show what hypocrites they were, because — the claim is made — deep down, Lincoln and the Republicans were ordinary white supremacists. That’s why, even when politicians like Lincoln denounced slavery as a “social, political, and moral evil,” the 1619 Project ignores them, because such convictions are incompatible with the project’s all-explanatory principle.

Misconstruing the Slave Economy

The political goal animating the 1619 Project is reparations. “If you read the whole project,” Nikole Hannah-Jones has said, “I don’t think you can come away from it without understanding the project is an argument for reparations. You can’t read it and not understand that something is owed.”19 But if the case for reparations rests on distorted history, it can’t be a good case. On the subject of slavery, the distortions of the 1619 Project are numerous, and they are significant. It conflates the wealth of the slaveholders with the wealth of the United States. It asserts without evidence that slavery “fueled” the growth of the Northern economy. It betrays a stunning lack of familiarity with the basic facts of cotton cultivation. It stresses the expansion of the cotton economy but ignores the South’s relative decline in the national economy. Slavery consigned generations of Southerners, black and white, to poverty and economic backwardness. Its legacy is hardship and misery, not widespread wealth.

Most of what the 1619 Project has to say about Southern slavery is contained in an essay by sociologist Matthew Desmond that grossly distorts the history of the slave economy and is riddled with factual errors.20 He asserts, citing Walter Johnson, that the slave plantations were “dependent on upriver trade for food.” In fact, it was conclusively demonstrated decades ago that the slave plantations produced their own food and did not rely on grain purchases from outside the region. Citing Caitlin Rosenthal, Desmond claims that modern-day accountants and managers employ bookkeeping “procedures whose roots twist back to slave-labor camps.” But Rosenthal says that the connection between plantation and modern accounting techniques is “murky” and explicitly warns that hers “is not an origins story” of contemporary accounting practices.21 In a podcast elaborating his thesis, Desmond asserts that cotton cultivation “in this country . . . dates back to the earliest years of the colonies. And when slavery begins on these shores, it begins in cotton fields.”22 In fact, cotton was not grown commercially in the South until the 1780s, one and a half centuries after 1619.

Desmond claims that the planters’ “meticulous bookkeepers” were “just as important to the productivity of a slave-labor camp as field hands.” This cannot be true. Thomas Affleck’s “Plantation Record and Account Book,” to which Desmond devotes several paragraphs, was first published in the late 1840s, after the bulk of the productivity increases in cotton cultivation were achieved. Indeed, productivity slowed and seems to have leveled off in the 1850s, when Affleck’s and similar books were most popular — and they were never all that popular. Rosenthal estimates that perhaps a quarter of the plantations used such books, and most of those were filled in haphazardly.

Desmond’s account of the increase in the productivity of enslaved laborers presupposes the prevalence of an implausibly rigid system of bureaucratically structured gang labor, a system in which every slave’s daily quota was closely monitored and carefully recorded, all with the goal of maximizing cotton production. “Because overseers were tracking everyone’s haul,” Desmond says, “if you fell short of that quota, you were often beat. . . . But if you overshot, that brought another terror, too, because the overseers might increase your quota for the next day.” Every day, he writes, overseers “recorded each enslaved worker’s yield,” and with each passing day, the slave was expected to meet or exceed the previous day’s weight.

But the record books themselves tell a very different story — a story worth spending some time on because it reveals the implausibility of Desmond’s account. In the decades before the Civil War, as cotton production was reaching its peak, for example, planters were abandoning the exclusive use of gang labor in favor of hybrid systems in which slaves were sometimes assigned tasks, sometimes offered incentives, and sometimes organized in gangs. The systematic monitoring of slave gangs cannot account for productivity increases on cotton plantations where the gang system was never universally deployed and anyway was being abandoned.23

From one day to the next, the amount of cotton a slave picked varied, sometimes dramatically. Some slaves got sick. It rained, so nobody worked. The weeds got out of hand, or “rust” appeared on the plants, or worms, any or all of which required shifting slaves from a singular devotion to picking cotton. There were many reasons why it would have been impossible to set a quota to which slaves were held each day. Mostly, however, the slaves could only pick cotton that was available to be picked, and that changed unpredictably from day to day, but more predictably over the course of the picking season. Cotton plants began to blossom in late summer, and the amount ready for picking rose rapidly for a month or two before beginning a steady decline until the season ended around Christmas. This means that, for about half the picking season, the amount of cotton available for picking diminished from day to day. Under such circumstances, it would have been physically impossible for slaves to maintain, much less exceed, the previous day’s quota. Then, too, the cotton crop varied from year to year, depending on the rainfall or on the spread of blight or the exhaustion of the soil. Desmond notes the wasteful planting practices that led to the steady deterioration of Southern soil, but he does not realize that this contributed to a general crisis that spread across the South by the 1850s.24

We know all of this precisely because, despite Desmond’s abuse of them, the plantation records are a crucial source of information about slavery. We even know about the increased productivity of cotton, because two remarkable economic historians aggregated tens of thousands of individual measurements of cotton picked by individual slaves on individual days over many decades.25 This aggregation obviated the unreliability of the records as a gauge of productivity from one day to the next. Planters’ letters and diaries register the problems they faced as the soil on their farms deteriorated. The record books also tell us about the managerial ideal to which many slaveholders aspired, an ideal that few planters actually achieved. Affleck, for example, repeatedly advised against maximizing cotton production at the expense of food production and plantation upkeep, and against too much whipping, lest it demoralize the enslaved workers and thereby decrease the plantation’s overall productivity. But this ideal was proposed as a corrective to the wasteful farming practices and irregular patterns of labor discipline that prevailed across the slaveholding South — all of which is to say that the 1619 Project’s description of labor organization on cotton plantations scarcely bears a passing resemblance to historical reality.

Southern Slavery and Northern Capitalism

The 1619 Project’s larger purpose, beyond likening slave plantations to modern capitalist organizations, is to tie the fortunes of Southern slavery to the fortunes of the larger capitalist world economy in which it was embedded. No one doubts that the slave economy of the South was linked to the rapidly developing economies of the North and of Britain, but anecdotes about this bank or that insurance company doing business in the South do not qualify as evidence that Northern economic development was “fueled” by Southern slavery, nor do they demonstrate that Northern finance “fueled” the growth of slavery. These are two different arguments, and they need to be carefully distinguished, if only because the case for reparations rests on the former rather than the latter. It makes a difference whether the wealth of the North depended on slavery or the prosperity of slavery depended on the North.

Desmond says that “the majority of credit powering the American slave economy came from the London money market,” which, if true, would mean that the slaveholders were heavily dependent on the London money market, not that the London money market was heavily dependent on the slave economy. It was not. The New York and London markets provided the yearly credit through Southern factors to cotton producers until the crop went to market. But a good deal of the credit “powering the American slave economy” was extended in the form of mortgages on slaves, the majority of which were financed privately and locally. After the Panic of 1837, London banks grew leery of the speculative nature of the slave economy and stopped investing in it — but their Southern investments had rarely constituted a significant fraction of their portfolios, and their withdrawal from the Southern market did not prevent the revival of cotton prices in the 1840s or the cotton “boom” of the 1850s.

Desmond rehearses the familiar claim that the slaves were worth more than all the factories and railroads put together. “You know,” he says, “land wasn’t worth that much.” As a result, he says, “the enslaved workforce in America was where the country’s wealth resided.” He is mistaken on both counts. Land in the slave states was not cheap, and the price of fertile land was rising to the point where nonslaveholders were being squeezed out of the market. Nor is it true that the bulk of the country’s wealth resided in slaves. Economic historian Gavin Wright calculates that the value of farms and buildings outside the South was $4.422 billion in 1860, whereas the total value of slaves that year was $3.059 billion.26 When the Civil War began, the North was still a largely agricultural economy, so the comparison of slave wealth with factories is misleading. Moreover, the value of Northern railroads was directly tied to the prosperity of Northern agriculture. It was the rail lines, fanning out from East to West, that tied Western farmers to Eastern and Atlantic markets — and not, incidentally, to the Southern market.

This is a crucial point: Northern economic growth was fueled primarily by the nexus of the city and the countryside within the North. The textile industry was impressive for its factories, but the bulk of Northern industrialization was located elsewhere, in manufacturing establishments that produced clocks, hats, farm implements, cigars, plates, and silverware. Those establishments were located not only in cities and mill villages but in the hundreds of market towns that had been a hallmark of the Northern economy since the eighteenth century. The markets for the North’s manufactured goods were almost entirely in the North. Eighty-five percent of the shoes produced in Northern factories were sold in the North. Northern communities prospered by attracting settlers, and they attracted settlers by building schools, roads, and market towns that made farming prosperous. As a result, not only did millions of immigrants pour into Northern states, so did tens of thousands of Southern whites. They left the slave states because there were no schools and few market towns, the transportation system was terrible, and the railroads were designed to serve the needs of slaveholders rather than small farmers. The slave economy thereby impoverished not only millions of enslaved blacks but millions of slaveless whites as well. 27

The Crisis of Southern Slave Society

By focusing so relentlessly on the productivity of cotton and the wealth amassed by Southern planters, the 1619 Project creates a misleading impression that the slave economy was much stronger than it was. Its editors thereby ignore a long tradition of scholarship pointing to serious internal weaknesses within the slave economy and the social and political tensions that became quite severe by the 1850s, at the very moment when the force of Northern antislavery politics was gathering momentum. William L. Barney ably summarizes the issue in his excellent recent history of secession:

The prosperity of the South in the 1850s bypassed most Southern whites. That prosperity was built on slaves, fertile land, and an expanding global demand for cotton, the antebellum production of which peaked in 1859. By then, good land and slaves were increasingly beyond the reach of the bulk of the white population. Slave prices more than doubled in the 1850s, and only the wealthy or those with substantial lines of credit could afford to purchase them. Decades of soil depletion and degradation had reduced the amount of cheap, fertile land for new plantations. A growing underclass of white poor found themselves reduced to working as farm tenants, sharecroppers, or hired laborers for the farmers and planters who did own slaves. Depending on the agricultural sub-region, 20 percent to 40 percent of the farm household heads owned neither land nor slaves. As a result, the color line blurred as more whites were forced into economic competition with slaves and free blacks.

Anger and frustration over shrinking opportunities for economic independence and advancement produced challenges to the established rule of planter elites and widened the cracks in the façade of white unity planters presented to the outside world. As the threat of the antislavery North loomed increasingly, planters grew uneasy over their mastery at home.28

What was the “looming threat” from the antislavery North? The opponents of slavery were determined to prevent slavery from expanding beyond its current limits. They assumed, as did many a Southern slaveholder, that slavery needed to expand to survive and that fencing slavery in would cause it to die what Abraham Lincoln called “a natural death.” Preventing slavery’s further expansion was the centerpiece of what I call the “antislavery project,” to which virtually all antislavery politicians were committed, including Abraham Lincoln.29 Radicals called it the “cordon of freedom.” The federal government would no longer support the expansion of slavery, admit new slave states, protect the rights of slaveholders on the high seas, or deploy the armed forces to help recapture fugitive slaves.

When William Lloyd Garrison called for the secession of the free states — “No Union with Slaveholders” — he had the same thing in mind. Critics complained that Northern secession would “leave the slaves to the mercy of their masters,” but Garrison denied it. To dissolve the Union, he explained,

is to withdraw from those masters all the resources and instrumentalities now furnished to them by the North, without which they are powerless. It is admitted on all sides, and especially by the leaders of the Republican party, that it is madness for the South to threaten a dissolution of the Union; for it is only through the Union she is enabled to keep her millions of slaves in their chains. Let her cut the connection, and she will be struck with paralysis.30

Disunion would deprive the slave states of the federal power they had long depended on to expand slavery’s territorial reach and participate in the capture of fugitive slaves. “If this Northern support were withdrawn,” writes Elizabeth Varon, summarizing Garrison’s position, “slavery would be doomed.”31

The Republican Party’s antislavery project was designed to do the same thing, yet nowadays, skeptics are quick to dismiss it as “delusional.” It could not have worked without a civil war, they argue, apparently on the assumption that the slave economy was so vibrant that it would have survived indefinitely had it not been for the war. But the weakness of the slave economy has been a persistent theme in the historiography, and over the years, numerous scholars have agreed that slavery had to expand to survive. “Slavery confined,” Allan Nevins wrote, “would be slavery under sentence of slow death.”32 As Eugene D. Genovese once put it, “The South had to expand, and its leaders knew it.”33 For the slaveholders to have agreed to their own geographical confinement, he argued, would have amounted to a self-inflicted beheading. The continued expansion of slavery was “a matter of economic necessity,” Barney explained in an earlier study. Because the wasteful planting practices intrinsic to slavery exhausted Southern soil, expansion satisfied one of “the basic internal needs of the South,” he noted, adding that “additional territory sustained the economic viability of slavery.”34 Charles Post is more emphatic. The “continued development of slavery,” he writes, “required geographical expansion into new territories.”35 John Clegg and Duncan Foley have recently offered a sophisticated model that they believe substantiates the hopes of Abraham Lincoln and the fears of Jefferson Davis. Slavery, they conclude, “did indeed have to ‘expand or die.’” 36 From this perspective, the antislavery project of preventing slavery from expanding would have put slavery “on a course of ultimate extinction,” even without a civil war.

But no counterfactual speculation is required to discern the contours of the slaveholding South’s internal crisis. The extraordinary wealth that so bedazzles the editors of the 1619 Project was in fact evidence of a rapidly developing crisis. Slave ownership was concentrating in fewer and fewer hands. Thirty-five percent of Southern families owned slaves in 1830, but that number fell to about 30 percent by 1850 and fell still more precipitously to 25 percent in 1860. The price of slaves skyrocketed to the point where a single “prime” field hand cost what, in today’s currency, would amount to tens of thousands of dollars. Yeoman farmers who aspired to slave ownership were thwarted, and even the sons of established planters found it difficult to reproduce the wealth of their parents. Meanwhile, the rates of landlessness became widespread in many parts of the South, and the number of poor whites increased dramatically. For a slaveholding class that had long justified itself by claiming that buying a slave was the first step up the social ladder, the ladder’s collapsing rungs generated both an ideological and a political crisis.

Long-simmering social tension — between slaveholders and nonslaveholders, on the one hand, and between masters and slaves, on the other — bubbled to the surface during the 1850s and burst into the center of Southern politics during the secession crisis. Insurrection panics swept the South as enslaved people learned of the election of the first president committed to slavery’s destruction. But as the slaveholders launched their rebellion, the nonslaveholders resisted and voted against secession. The ensuing war exposed the failure of Southern slave society, as 450,000 Southerners joined the Union Army.37

There is no reason to believe that taking the Civil War out of the story would have significantly altered the trajectory of the slave economy’s paradoxical history. By 1860, the South was the largest, wealthiest slave society on Earth — quite possibly the largest slave society in the history of the world. But even as King Cotton was ascending his throne and extending his reach across the Southern frontier, the Southern economy was steadily declining relative to the North’s. Within the larger American economy, cotton was pawn, not king. A late nineteenth century without a war would have witnessed the North’s great leap into industrialization, even as the cotton market stagnated. Under conditions of geographical restriction, the price of slaves might well have collapsed, and with that, much of the South’s “wealth” would have evaporated.38

The decline of the South’s power in the federal government, already evident in the 1850s, would likely have accelerated. Here, too, the story was paradoxical. The “Slave Power” had long exercised disproportionate influence in the federal government, repeatedly tilting it in proslavery directions. And yet, as the slave economy slid into relative decline, so did Southern political power. Having long since lost control of the House of Representatives, the South came to depend on maintaining an “equilibrium” of slave and free states in the Senate. But that equilibrium was shattered in 1850 when California came into the Union as a free state. The slaveholders had secured a new fugitive slave law, but they could not enforce it. They managed to repeal the Missouri Compromise, but they could not get Kansas admitted as a slave state. Nor could they get the federal government to build a Southern rail route to the Pacific, or get Southern California to split off into a new slave state, or annex Cuba or Nicaragua. The South got an outrageous proslavery decision from the US Supreme Court in 1857, but it made little practical difference, and when the antislavery Republicans took control of Congress and the presidency in 1861, they disregarded the court’s ruling and repudiated its legal reasoning. Antislavery Northerners, their economic system dependent on access to “free soil,” had become steadily more aggressive in their determination to undermine slavery. By 1860, a “Liberty Power” had been thwarting the Slave Power for some time.39 It is delusional to imagine that an increasingly powerful North would have wilted in the face of a South that somehow managed to avoid a war.

But there was a war, and it was the explosive combination of social upheaval in the South and antislavery politics in Washington, DC, that transformed the war into a revolution. Readers of the 1619 Project can be excused if they fail to notice.

Erasing Emancipation

The 1619 Project’s insistence on a timeless, almost genetically determined white racial consensus reduces the Civil War and emancipation to mere afterthoughts, blips in a history in which nothing has really changed. According to this account, Reconstruction offered a brief glimmer of hope, but those hopes were quickly dashed as white Redeemers reestablished control and restored slavery, if by another name. For the sake of historical continuity, slavery is thereby transformed from a social relationship in which one human being owns another as chattel property into a minor variation on the capitalist theme of commodified labor, as though contracting out your labor power — something we all do — were the same thing as being owned by someone else as a piece of personal property. No doubt racism could flourish under both systems. But the significance of racial ideology varies, depending on the particular social and political conditions within which it thrives, and the conditions of the postbellum South were fundamentally different from those of slavery. You can’t understand this — which means you can’t even understand how racism works — if you diminish the significance of the Civil War and emancipation from the history of the United States.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the former slaveholders, now landlords, made strenuous attempts to return their workers to something as close to slavery as possible, but the freed people resisted, and through that conflict, they forced the landowners to settle for a system of sharecropping. Black farmers now worked in families, on their own plots, rather than under supervision in large fields. The overseers were gone, as were the slave auction houses. Sharecropping was legally defined as a form of wage labor based on contracts voluntarily entered every year between black farmers and white landowners. As the decades passed, black farmers gradually accumulated land. As slaves, their marriages had no legal standing, but freed people scrambled to have their marriages certified, and for the first time, their lives were shaped by the laws and customs of domestic patriarchy. It had been a crime to teach slaves to read, but after the Civil War, black parents struggled to have their children educated, even in grossly inferior segregated schools. The average life expectancy of Southern blacks doubled between 1860 and 1900.40

But this radically new system of social property relations emerged under conditions of severely constrained economic opportunity and racial terror. One measure of the desperation of ex-slaves’ condition was the extraordinary turnover rates of tenants and sharecroppers on postwar Southern plantations. Year after year, they moved from one landlord to another in search of better terms or better land. But they lived by credit, and to get credit, they had to grow cash crops. As a result, even as the cotton market stagnated, cotton remained the crop that secured credit and ensured sharecroppers the greatest return. The Southern labor market offered no options. The cotton mills were segregated, but even if they hadn’t been, it would not have made much difference. Isolated from the national and even international labor market, the South remained a low-wage region in a high-wage nation. Sharecroppers were thereby trapped in a system that offered no viable alternatives. And as Leon Litwack taught generations of undergraduates, it was not the failure but the success of black workers — the slow accumulation of land, of literacy, and of rising life expectancy — that provoked so much of the racial terrorism that reached its horrific apex in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

It was a deeply, profoundly repressive system, but it wasn’t slavery. Sharecroppers were legally free. Adult men shopped their services from landlord to landlord, contracting their family’s labor power, compelled to work not by the direct domination of a master but by the force of economic necessity imposed by the indirect mechanisms of a labor market. One way to appreciate how different this was is by thinking of politics as a mirror of the South’s dramatically transformed social realities.

Antislavery politics was focused primarily on delegitimating property rights in human beings, on exposing the horrors of the domestic slave trade, the slaveholders’ virtually unrestricted access to the slave’s sexuality, the extreme vulnerability of slave families, and the enforced illiteracy of the slaves. Emancipation made such politics irrelevant. Indeed, even as the Civil War was raging, the revolutionary overthrow of slavery led almost immediately to a new kind of politics. As Union forces replaced the incentive of the whip with the incentive of the market, the freed people began demanding higher wages, better working conditions, and more equitable contracts. Slave rebels struggled for emancipation, but emancipated people struggled for civil and political rights — and for land. They understood that formal legal equality, though necessary, was not sufficient. Slaveholders had no need to disfranchise black voters, whether by terror or by law, because there were no black voters in the slave states. Slaveholders used direct legal domination to control the lives of enslaved people; postwar landlords used the credit system. The politics of the postwar South were different from the politics of slavery because a radically different social and political system called for a radically different kind of politics. Anti-racism would be a feature of struggles for justice in both the antebellum and postbellum world, but it would never be enough.

Students will learn none of this from a 1619 Project that has botched the history of the slave economy, misconstrued the origins of Northern economic development, erased the history of antislavery, and rendered emancipation irrelevant. And, having failed in all these ways, the 1619 Project leaves its readers ignorant of one of the great problems in the history of the United States, indeed of the modern world. The problem can be stated succinctly: capitalism gave rise to both slavery and antislavery. Put differently, slavery became a problem within the history of capitalism.

Conclusion: Capitalism, Slavery, and Antislavery

For its first 150 years, the Atlantic slave trade was dominated by the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, neither of which had experienced a transition to capitalism, and neither of which was propelled into a capitalist transition by the profits of slavery or slave trading. Up to that point, Atlantic slavery was no more “capitalist” and had no more to do with capitalism than the ancient slave systems of Egypt, Greece, or Rome. It was not until the middle of the seventeenth century that Britain launched the first truly capitalist empire, with momentous consequences for the history of slavery in the Americas. For another century and a half, this “second slavery” flourished. Slave plantations began producing commodities — tobacco, sugar, cocoa, coffee, and rice — on an unprecedented scale for mostly British consumers. Dutch, French, and Iberian empires reoriented their slave systems to accommodate the needs of the new capitalist market.

At the center of it all was the British empire, and not surprisingly, the relationship between slavery and the early industrial revolution in England in the eighteenth century became a subject of intense scholarly interest. Few historians any longer doubt that slavery played some role in England’s industrial revolution, though they continue to disagree about how to measure that role and how large it was. But the lines of force worked in two directions. Slavery undoubtedly had some part in stimulating British economic development, but British economic development played a central role in stimulating the growth of slave plantations in the New World. This is the larger context that has led historians to shift some of their focus away from 1619.

Historians now speak of a “transition” to slavery in colonial Virginia that occurred sometime in the last half of the seventeenth century. Before then, most of the labor on Chesapeake tobacco plantations was performed by white indentured servants. What stimulated the shift to slave labor? Edmund Morgan hypothesized that it was Bacon’s Rebellion in the mid-1670s, which alerted the planter class to the dangers of a growing number of landless settlers. But it probably had more to do with capitalist development. Allan Kulikoff and others pointed to the revival of the British economy that stemmed the flow of indentured servants. In the immediate aftermath of the English Civil War, moreover, the restored monarchy, cut off from its traditional sources of income, began actively promoting slavery and the slave trade in the 1660s. Deprived of their established source of workers at the very moment consumer demand for tobacco was exploding, Chesapeake planters turned to the well-established Atlantic slave trade. It was then that the tobacco plantations became primarily slave plantations. Soon thereafter, South Carolina established a slave system of its own, though it was focused chiefly on rice rather than on tobacco. In the eighteenth century, Britain became the world’s leading importer of enslaved Africans into the Americas, and though its North American colonies played a relatively small role in that commerce, by the third quarter of the century, nearly half a million Africans had arrived in the colonies that would later become the United States.

But the same capitalist revolution that was stimulating the spectacular growth of American slavery was prompting the emergence of powerful arguments against slavery. Appearing first among the dissenting sects during the English Civil War, antislavery sentiment became particularly pronounced among Quakers. But antislavery had a pronounced secular component. Though often framed in religious terms, the opponents of slavery adopted the premises of “possessive individualism,” the conviction that the right of property originated in the right of self-ownership. The ownership of one human being by another was increasingly denounced as “man-stealing.” Thus did the principal ideological justification for capitalism become, at the same time, the principal rationale for opposing slavery: it was a violation of the natural right of freedom, above all the right to the fruits of one’s own labor. The ideology flourished in the Northern colonies, where farm families achieved a “competency” based on self-sufficient communities supplemented by access to regional and Atlantic markets.

When the American Revolution established that principle as the ideological basis for American nationhood, a century of antislavery sentiment suddenly generated the world’s first major moves toward abolition in those same Northern colonies. By the time the delegates arrived at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, the split between the Northern and Southern states was already clear.

But as increasingly commercialized agriculture spread across the Northern frontier, the paradox of capitalism and slavery became more obvious, and more unsustainable, than ever. The unprecedented wealth of the North once again stimulated the demand for the products of slave labor, above all cotton. At the same time, however, the basis of Northern wealth — “free soil” extracted from dispossessed native peoples — became the foundation for rising Northern hostility to slavery. The defining feature of this “third slavery” was the simultaneous growth of slavery and freedom and the ultimately irreconcilable contradiction between proslavery politics in the South and antislavery politics in the North. Of the manifold failings of the 1619 Project, this may be the greatest: it all but erases the fact that, for the first seventy years of its existence, the United States was roiled by intense, escalating conflict over slavery, a conflict that was only resolved by a brutal civil war.

The problem of slavery is not that it was a forerunner of modern capitalism. It wasn’t. The problem is not that slavery “fueled” the economic growth of the North. It didn’t. The problem, all along, was capitalism itself. And once the problem of slavery was resolved by the Civil War and emancipation, there remained, and still remains, the problem of capitalism.

About the Author

James Oakes is the author of several books and articles on slavery, antislavery, and emancipation. His most recent book is The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution, published in January 2021.